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Water-based vs. Oil-based Polyurethane Floors

Water-based vs. Oil-based Polyurethane Floors

Hardwood floor refinishing is a pretty standard home improvement project, but it does come with one tough decision that a lot of people stress about: is it better to go with water-based or oil-based polyurethane floors? While considering what type of polyurethane to use when refinishing hardwood floors, there is really no “best” option because it depends on each specific project and situation.


What looks best to one person may not fit the preferences of another. One household may need the durability of oil-based because of young kids and pets in the home. In contrast, another household may have family members sensitive to the smell of chemicals and prefer a lower VOC option. In the end, both water-based and oil-based polyurethanes do their job well, and there’s really no blatant wrong choice. However, there are some differences to consider. For this reason, it’s best to use the information below to weigh the options as well as the pros and cons with consideration of the specific project in question.


Water-Based Polyurethane Floors


  • Clear finish: doesn’t yellow over time.
  • Low odor: the odor isn’t as strong as oil-based polyurethane
  • Dries fast: only needs about 2 hours to dry, meaning 2-3 coats can be applied in one day
  • Environmentally friendly: lower VOC than oil-based polyurethane
  • Easy clean up: often can be cleaned up with just soap and water
  • More expensive: it costs most than oil-based polyurethane (double on average)
  • Needs more coats: because it’s thinner and only has 30-35% solids (what creates the protective finish), more coats are needed than with oil-based polyurethane
  • More maintenance: new coats will need to be applied every couple of years to bring back shine and durability
  • Less durable: doesn’t do well with heavily weighted traffic



Oil-Based Polyurethane Floors


  • Warm, earthy finish: adds an amber tint over time, that may yellow on light floors
  • Strong odor: the odor is stronger than water-based polyurethane
  • Slow dry time: must wait 7-8 hours between coats
  • More toxic: contains flammable and toxic solvents
  • Hard to clean up: will need a specialized solvent to clean up
  • Durable: will stand up to heavily weighted wear and tear better than water-based polyurethane
  • Fewer coats needed: contains 45%-50% solids and doesn’t require as many coats as water-based polyurethane
  • Less maintenance: doesn’t need to be refinished as often and can often last 5 or 10 years before needing to be redone


When refinishing hardwood floors, deciding between water-based or oil-based polyurethane tends to stump people. Defining the most important features for the specific project like how quickly the job needs to be done, maintenance requirements, the preferred look, and the other elements outlined above will help to narrow down option.